Rice would appear to be an innocuous food, fluffy and colorless, with a taste that does not exactly overwhelm. But readers who’ve finished Mischa Berlinski’s canny, diverting first novel, Fieldwork, may feel differently about this form of starch. A rice-planting ritual plays a pivotal role in this National Book Award finalist, which tells a piquant tale of anthropologists, missionaries, and murder in northern Thailand.
The narrator of Fieldwork is a young American who just happens to be named Mischa Berlinski. A smart but aimless fellow, he accompanies his girlfriend to Northern Thailand, where she takes a job as a schoolteacher and he finds intermittent work freelancing for English-language publications. (The real Berlinski also worked as a journalist in Thailand.) Mischa becomes obsessed by the case of Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist who committed suicide in a Thai jail, where she was imprisoned for murder. Both Martiya and her victim, a missionary, had been living among the Dyalo, a Thai hill tribe whose religion includes a complex pantheon of spirits.
What impelled a Berkeley-educated academic to put two bullets in the back of an evangelist? That question gives Fieldwork the suspense of a mystery novel. Yet what’s really absorbing are the book’s wonderfully vivid, often funny portraits of contrasting cultures. Living in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, Mischa and his girlfriend, Rachel, partake of a quirkily internationalist milieu—a place of tempestuous monsoons and exotic streetscapes, but also of American commodities and eccentric Western expatriates. Mischa drinks mango Slurpies from a 7-Eleven, and he and Rachel take yoga lessons from a German chef who’s the owner of a pet duck named Donut.
While living in this odd corner of the global village, Mischa investigates Martiya’s past, in the process learning about the idiosyncratic worlds of anthropology scholars and Grateful Dead groupies. Another long section of the novel chronicles Martiya’s immersion in the sociology, theology, and linguistics of the Dyalo—who take their name from the “dyal,” or rice-planting ritual, in which men and women from different villages pair off to sow the fields. Each year the dyal rite suspends the tribe’s ordinary social rules—as Martiya learns to her cost.
The section devoted to Dyalo anthropology is not the fastest-paced part of the book, but the detail is meted out with a sure hand, and the tone is often gently humorous—as with the extended portrait of Farts-a-Lot, Martiya’s kindly weirdo of a hut-mate, who hoards bottles containing embalmed insects suspended in homemade rice whisky.
One other culture receives comparable attention in Fieldwork: that of the Christian missionary, represented by the Walkers, a family in its fourth generation of mission work in the Orient. As a seemingly agnostic Jew, Mischa shares few values with this dynasty of energetic optimists, who have developed a mindset that is neither wholly Eastern nor wholly Western. It gradually becomes clear, in fact, that the young freelancer’s friendly relationship with the clan is in itself a kind of anthropological fieldwork. “There was simply no telling what would come out of a Walker mouth,” he marvels at one point, describing one scion’s tendency “to refer to biblical characters in precisely the same tone of voice that one might use to describe the neighbors who let their dog run loose: ‘I can’t talk about Saul, he just gets me so frustrated.’”
Despite the gulf between their experience and Mischa’s, the Walkers come across as smart, vibrant, generous, and even reasonably tolerant, the occasional debate about the Satanic influence of Star Wars notwithstanding. Even their equation of Dyalo spirit theology with demonic possession stops seeming so outlandish as the story unfolds. Mischa never fully understands the Walkers, but then, neither does he really understand his girlfriend, who wants to settle down and have kids.
And maybe such understanding is an impossibility to begin with. In a digression about the field of anthropology, Berlinski quotes the seminal (and real-life) anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski describing fieldwork as an attempt “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” As it limns its enigmatic narrative, Fieldwork asks whether Malinowski’s mandate is just a setup for failure. Maybe we can never wholly grasp another group’s perspective, or for that matter even another person’s. Maybe it is true, as Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities—another book about a hazardous international landscape—that “every human creature is constituted to be [a] profound secret and mystery to every other.”